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Long form storytelling in a short attention span world

Are we really living in a short attention span world? I’m convinced it’s really only a matter of context. I think this idea of shorter attention spans only relates to digital media. People still read long books which seem to be getting longer, we sit in movie theatres to watch 3 hour movies and newspapers still exist. People tend to read websites with a quick glance and prefer to watch short videos under 90 seconds.

I started pondering this while watching a live video stream of a panel discussion about, well, “Long-Form Storytelling in a Short-Attention-Span World“. In a nutshell, they weren’t convinced that people have a short attention span these days. On the panel was The New Yorker’s David Remnick, Frontline’s Raney Aronson-Rath, ProPublica’s Stephen Engelberg and Ira Glass of NPR’s This American Life (hilarious guy).

My takeaways:

The average This American Life listener tunes in for 48 out of its 59 minutes. Maybe longform storytelling isn’t dead – it’s badly done longform that’s dead.

Money is the biggest threat to longform journalism, not the audience.

Engelberg of ProPublica.org says that longform storytelling provides the context and meaning for the brevity of feeds (ex: Twitter).

Tablets have the potential to create a golden age of longform journalism and make it more accessible. Their interactive nature can also make great extensions for documentaries by making them more dynamic. Allowing users to dig deeper into the content. Just don’t break the narrative. Example, “I work hard to describe how a screwball works. I don’t want them to click a link on ‘screwball'”

Ira Glass mentioned that 24 hour news cycles de-emphasize character and storytelling. It lacks a sense of discovery and a sense of joy.

If you’re a reporter, opportunities for good, unique stories come after all the other reporters have left. I took this as while everyone else is reporting the same thing, you can interview the people related to the event. An example was given of a war correspondant. One of the worst places to cover a war is at the front. You only get one perspective. You can also interview the townsfolk, relatives of soldiers back home, etc. Some of the thinnest stories can blossom into the best stories with the right storyteller.

Just because an issue is trending doesn’t mean it’s actually important.

Ira Glass answered an audience question echoing Marshall McLuhan by explaining that the medium determines what makes a good story. For example, video provides a specific kind of storytelling while while audio (radio art) provides another. But great stories happen to those who can tell them.

The spirit of social media fully understood: You don’t need a journalism degree to be a journalist or a documentary maker. As long as you have an eye and have a keen reporter’s mind. As well as passion. Ira Glass said that he didn’t go to grad school. Instead, he paid reporters to critique his work. Ira Glass said that we’re in the age of accessible tools for everyone and it’s the advantage of the media landscape we are in. So just start making stuff. You don’t have to wait until someone gives you permission.

Aspiring writers should read everything. And read like a writer in the same way a doctor looks at a human body – a little differently than the rest of us. Don’t read like a literature student.

Ira Glass quoted from a mentor who said that “Every story is an answer to the question: how should I live my life?”